This post is a review of The Lifted Brow issue 20, by Veronica Sullivan.
The Lifted Brow Issue 20
Edited by Sam Cooney
Having reached its twentieth issue, the roguish provocateur of the literary journal coterie still retains the power to thrill, surprise and rouse. Mingling the best in fiction, essays, memoir, interviews, art and criticism, The Lifted Brow’s contributors hail from all over, but its content is skewed heavily towards Australian perspectives and experiences.
If there is a recurring motif to this issue, it could be of looking at things slightly askance. Here the macabre and weird become unexpectedly charming. Nonfiction pieces on topics as diverse as abandoned theme-park exploration, lifelike reborn dolls, camping on a central London rooftop, and the deliberate introduction of exotic species are energised by the unfailingly generous and broadminded enquiries of their authors. For example, Briohny Doyle’s memories of her abortive teenage flirtation with modern witchcraft mutate seamlessly into an analysis of the limited ways transgressive women have been represented historically and in popular culture. These are not exposés: they are investigations.
The writers seek universal resonances in odd, somewhat niche experiences. Nina Gibb’s “Be Bad” articulates the conflicting desire for indiscretion grounded in the real world, in her description of a painting by Goya: “The inversion tickles an uncomfortable psychic space: is there a secret cavern in humans that knows that the value in the child is perhaps partly to do with the fact that—in the spirit of the brothers Grimm or Cormac McCarthy—a fresh baby would make an excellent and succulent roast, all the more luxurious and valuable because of the great waste one would have to got to the produce such a thing”.
The fiction in this twentieth issue is sparse, but potent. A short excerpt from Luke Carman’s recent novel An Elegant Young Man (Giramondo) exhibits the confidence of a writer who balances insight with surprise and knocks the reader down for a moment. “I don’t understand women. It annoys me when men say that. But every now and then, the words just slip out of their own accord. Maybe it’s because my mother was often attacked by ghosts in the middle of the night and I had to run in and save her or they’d strangle her.”
The two winners of the 2013 QUT Creative Writing Prize’s postgraduate division are both wistful and beautifully rendered. Emily O’Grady’s “Phantom Limbs” is a delicate, considered story with a deceptively powerful impact. It perfectly mingles the commonplace routines of the everyday with the thrill of the abject, as a grown daughter wearily performs her obligatory devotion to her ageing mother whose arm has recently been severed in an accident. The second winning story, Sarah Kanake’s “Queen’s Cross”, is a delicately handled exploration of loss, trauma and repression. It follows a night in the life of a recently returned Vietnam War veteran meandering around the pubs and backstreets of Kings Cross. It’s laden with stark honesty, yet only reveals itself in the final sentences.
The Brow’s eccentricities and quirks are its point of difference from other literary journals: the unusual elements laced throughout that may seem lightly humorous or insubstantial, but are filled with character. Issue 20’s fragmentary “horrorscopes” fall into this category, snapshots of actual horoscopes with the majority of the words blacked out like a censored letter. The result is vaguely sinister astrological predictions: “Gemini: … are you actually … anything? … just … mist”; “Aries: … reggae … is so … so … so … so … wrong.” The art featured is provocative and proficient. “Ashtrayin History thru political cartoons” by Sam Wallman is a depressingly accurate commentary on Antipodean insularity and denial, repurposing and interpreting the messages of retro cartoons.
Chris Somerville selects the highlights from the tweets of @petarcarey, a fake Twitter account set up as a mockery of Australian-American author Peter Carey. In condensing the character’s bon mots, insults and miniature rants into 140 characters, the unknown propagator of the @petarcarey tweets created an output merging the hilarious (“I’ve got a lovely bunch of Australia Council interns in the basement, chained up to the radiator, working furiously on my next novel!”), the offensive (“Tsiolkas is about as controversial as store bought tzatsiki”), and the surprisingly insightful (“Sometimes I think I drink booze just to make water taste better in the middle of the night.”). The legacy of these tweets, and the ensuing un-dead spinoff @zombiecarey, are worth chronicling if only for the brief flare of interest they incited and the defensive response of Carey’s publisher, Penguin, to what was self-evidently a parodic account.
The Middlebrow liftout showcases excellent, engaged critical writing across the full spectrum of culture and the arts. The reflective nature of Middlebrow is exemplified in Ellena Savage’s pleasantly meandering and undecided piece on the purpose of writers festivals and the duty (or lack thereof) of the writer to double as public intellectual. Likewise, Stephanie Van Schilt’s thoughtful extended contemplation of cultural cringe in her response to Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake. It’s a review that speaks to deeper ideas about cultural output and the anxiety of influence, with full consideration of and appreciation for both the limitations and opportunities of the miniseries medium.
Not all of The Lifted Brow’s content will hold unanimous appeal. Even the most inquisitive and well-rounded reader is unlikely to hold simultaneous, equally enthused interests in obscure French cocktails, libertarianism, the chess game in Blade Runner, gay rugby, guerrilla art, and women’s underwear. However, the passion and eloquence of The Lifted Brow’s writers is sufficient that they imbue each of these topics with the weight of life, meaning and relevance.